Public Speaking – Impromptu Tips

Russ Jamieson Personal Development

Great video from Stanford Graduate School of Business.  Matt Abrahams


How to think fast and talk smart

Matt Abrahams talks about studies that have been done that show that 85% of people get anxiety before public speaking.  He says the other 15% are probably lying, and I completely agree with him.  This is a great video that teaches us ways to manage anxiety so we can communicate more effectively.

Part 1 – Manage anxiety
How do you feel when you watch a nervous speaker? Uncomfortable and disengaged. In order to deliver your message, you must make audience feel comfortable and this means you need to be comfortable.

The initial minutes prior to speaking is when most people get nervous.  Some people spiral out of control when people start to get nervous.  They think people notice and this exacerbates the feeling.  In order to counteract this, greet your anxiety.  Anxiety is completely normal and natural.  Greeting it will stop it from spinning out of control.

Next, re-frame how you see the speaking situation. Most of us feel we have to do it perfect.  A lot of people are perfectionists when it comes to speaking in public.  They over-analyze every little mistake.. even mistakes that nobody else notices.  When you present, there is no right way. Look at it as a conversation, not a performance.  If possible, start with questions.  This will engage the audience and encourage involvement.  This makes it more like a conversation.  Additionally, use conversational language instead of “paper talk”.  Don’t use big unnecessary words.  Keep it simple and understandable to the lowest audience member.

Finally, bring yourself into the present moment.  Most of us are worried about future states.  Eckhart Tolle and Alan Watts, two of my favorite authors always talk about being in the present.  Don’t regret the past and don’t worry about the future.  Just be present.  Be prepared of course, but when speaking, be as present as possible.  Some methods to get into this state before you speak: listen to music, count backwards from 100 by 12, physically exert yourself (push-ups).  Practice some tongue twisters.

I slit a sheet. A sheet I slit. And on the slitted sheet I sit.
She sells seashells by the seashore
Can you can a can as a canner can can a can
Four fine fresh fish for you
And my favorite – I wish to wash my Irish wristwatch


In summary you can manage your anxiety by: greeting it, reframing your speech as a conversation, and becoming present.

Part 2 – Grounds rules for improvisational speaking

Step 1 – We are our own worst enemies.  We (our brains) get in our own way. We want to get things right to the point that we sabotage ourselves.  Our brains are always anticipating everything.  Your brain is there to help but it can get in the way by pre-gaming. Thank your brain for being so amazing, but disregard the patterns.  Train your brain to get out of its own way.  In spontaneous speaking you put too much pressure on yourself to get it right. Don’t over evaluate.   As Matt says, “Dare to be dull”

Matt suggests a fun game to play to in order to train your brain to get out of the way – Shout the wrong name game.  The best part about this game is that you can’t mess up and you can do it anytime.  For 30 seconds, look around the room and point at something and shout out anything but what it actually is.  This is pretty difficult at first, but keep at it.  Try it now for 30 seconds.  Warning, it’s hard… at first.  Keep at it.  This will train you to stop trying to get things perfect and get out of your own way.  This will train you to react in a way that is genuine and authentic instead of responding, which takes too long because you’re overthinking and trying to make it perfect.

Step 2 – Change how we see the situation we find ourselves in.  See it as an opportunity instead of a threat.  Reframe your impromptu/spontaneous speaking as opportunistic and fun.  If you look at it in any other way, you will become defensive and it won’t be spontaneous and genuine.

Matt has another cool game to try.  Give the gift game.  Give a pretend gift to a partner.  They then open it up and say what they have found in the box.  It’s an imaginary box, so they just make something up on the spot.  This forces the person to think of something spontaneously. Then the giver has to say “I knew you wanted that because…” And then they give a reason on the spot.

Use the term “Yes and” instead of “no but”.  You don’t actually have to say yes and. It’s just a train of thought.  See things as opportunities instead of things you don’t want to do.

Step 3 – slow down and listen. Don’t jump ahead. Listen all the way through. In order to understand your audience, you must listen.  Most of the time when someone is speaking, the other person is thinking of what to say next once they are done talking.  Instead, just listen intently.

Spell everything you say game.  When talking to someone, spell out everything you are saying.  This will show you that you must focus and listen and not think ahead.  Maxim – Don’t just do something, stand there.

Step 4 – Tell a story.  Respond in a structured way!  Structure is important because it helps us process it more effectively.

You never want to lose your audience.  Structure does that for you.  They tell you how to say what you have to say.  When you’re speaking spontaneously, you have to think of what to say and how to say it. Structures take away one of those and makes it easier.

2 structures, each with three parts:

1 – Problem(or opportunity). Solution. Benefit of following through.

2 – What. So what. Now what.
What is it. Why is it important. And the next step might be to buy it if it’s a product.  This is also good for introducing someone.  Who they are, why they are important, and what we will do next.  Structure sets you free because you only have to focus on one aspect of the talk (what to say) because the way you will say it is already laid out.  You are reducing the cognitive load of what you’re saying and how to say it.

Check out Matt Abraham’s book – Speaking Up without Freaking Out: 50 Techniques for Confident, Calm, and Competent Presenting

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